The ‘philosophy of mind’ trend in current movies
By Andrea Bichan
The magazine you’re holding in your hands right now is not real. In fact, you’re not real. Nothing is. Everything you know, everyone you’ve ever cared about simply does not exist. You’re in a computer simulation, or someone else’s dream. Maybe you’re somebody’s creation, their main character. Or maybe you’re just an extra.
It is possible. Oxford Philosophy Professor Nick Bostrom published a paper in 2002 that theorizes that we are all part of a computer simulation created by a posthuman society, which means we are “living” in the future.
The paper “follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.” Essentially, unless we are in a simulation right now, basking in our own unreality, the creatures that come after us will probably never try to simulate our existence. This significantly enlarges the chance that we are an illusion.
Theories like this stem from a branch of philosophy called metaphysics. “Metaphysics is the study of what is real and what isn’t,” says Brendan Murday, an Ithaca College philosophy professor, who is teaching a course in metaphysics next semester. “Time, is the future real, is the past real… Are tables real? I know someone who doesn’t believe in tables.” The science dates back to Aristotle and Plato, and unfortunately, we are no closer to the answers than they were.
This terrifying notion captivated the film industry in the late 1990s. They churned out action-packed thrillers, heart-warmers, and movies that are downright uncomfortable. The next time you find yourself asking, “What am I, really?” you may want to check out these popular flicks:
The Matrix, the famous 1999 Keanu Reeves butt-kicker that took the world by storm is the closest to Professor Bostrom’s theory. In it, Neo, the protagonist, learns about the Matrix, a computer simulation in which he lives while his body heat is being harnessed as power for the superintelligent machines that have since taken over the world. It’s up to Neo and his team of rebels to take down the Matrix and give humans their actual lives back. However, in the film, one in the group betrays them, preferring the simulation to reality. This brings up interesting questions: Does the group have the right to determine which “reality”–mental or physical–is more important? Does it matter if a world is fictional?
The Truman Show is a 1998 “dramedy” starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man who unwittingly lives the first three decades of his life on an enormous TV show set. His life–the creation of a writing team–is a huge success, capturing hearts across the country. Once he realizes that all the circumstances of his life are false, Truman tries to make a getaway for reality. Just before reaching the door to freedom, the show’s creator, Cristof, appeals to him: “Truman, there’s no more truth out there than the world I created for you. The same lies and deceit. But in my world, there’s nothing to fear.” It is up to Truman, and to you, to decide whether or not Cristof is right.
In Being John Malkovich, the man in an alternate reality is being controlled by something a little more direct–the reckless employees of LesterCorp, a mundane, Manhattan-based company. They find a portal directly into Malkovich’s mind and have the ability to control his every action. Eventually it is revealed that the founder of LesterCorp is planning on inhabiting his body permanently when it turns 44–he has been using this portal to live forever in a variety of host bodies. In this film, the questions of reality lie not in the surroundings, but in the actual person. John Malkovich’s reality is being controlled by any number of people at a time, but he is functioning in a completely “real” world, as far as we know. Just how real are people and their identities, if they can be so overpowered?
“I think film does a pretty good job in dealing with philosophical questions,” says Murday. “Look at Minority Report…they can look into the future…but obviously they saw it incorrectly, because otherwise they would have seen themselves stopping the crime.”
It’s all metaphysics. Maybe we are living in the future, like Bostrom claims–in a world where humans no longer exist. Or maybe the concepts of past and present are nothing more than ideas. It’s a debate that will long outlive our generation. So for now, let’s just kick back and enjoy the entertainment that it brings.
Andrea Bichan is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.